This week’s redistricting Special Session is the latest in a long run of map drawing and redrawing exercises the legislature has had to undertake since the Justice Department began strong enforcement of the Voting Rights Act in 1991 vis-a-vis minority-access and majority-minority districts.
Prior to 1968, Florida’s legislature was badly apportioned. While the state had experienced massive growth in thw 1920’s and then especially in the 1950’s, legislative districts were not reflective of the growth. We have often discussed on this website the control of the state exercised by the “Pork Chop Gang” a group of Democrats from rural areas that controlled the entire legislature from the early 1950’s until the late 1960’s and continued at various times to control the Senate until the last 1980’s.
In 1967, Dade County with over a million residents had only three State House members while Lafayette and Glades both with populations under 3,000 each had one. At that point in time it was possible for 12% of the state’s population to control the State Senate and just 14% to control the State House. And generally they did.
From the early 1950’s until the 1967 court-mandated reapportionment, political power in the legislature rested squarely in North Florida, even though 45% of the population of the state lived in either the Miami or Tampa Metropolitan areas in 1960. The Tampa and Miami areas had 45% of the population but only 8% of the legislative seats at the time. The leadership of the legislature was hostile to urban interests, The St Pete Times, The Miami Herald and any sort of civil rights legislation. Governor Leroy Collins, himself the son of a Tallahassee grocer tried valiantly to reapportion the legislature but failed. Less assertive efforts by the more conservative Governor Farris Bryant and Haydon Burns also fell flat. Finally when Republicans won the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since the Reconstruction era in 1966 did something happen. Governor Claude Kirk was an enigmatic, colorful and undefined ideological figure. Riding white anger about Civil Rights into the Governors office after Democratic voters had rejected Governor Burns attempts at renomination in favor of liberal Miami Mayor (and Civil Rights supporter) Robert King High, about 40 – 45% of the state’s Democratic voters crossed party lines and elected Kirk over High.
Kirk wasn’t progressive by most standards except perhaps on environmental issues, but in those days many Republicans tended to be better on those issues anyhow. But he was a Republican with national ambitions and a desire to grow his party. On this front he threw in with urban interests and a confluence of other events led to a new state constitution. The legislature was finally reapportioned in 1968 to reflect the population balance and “one person, one vote” principle reflected in the US Constitution. The House had several “multi-member” districts which were abolished finally in 1982. I personally believe strongly that multi-member districts led to better governance and broader perspectives (hence the “Golden Era” of the 1970’s in state government), but we can save that discussion for another day.
Even after reapportionment, the most powerful legislator in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was Senator Dempsey Barron (D-Panama City), who despite being pro-Civil Rights was a hard line conservative on just about every other issue. Barron clashed with Governors Reubin Askew and Bob Graham regularly and kept political power outside the urban areas as best he could. He took on the Miami Herald and St Petersburg Times and was able for years to frustrate the attempts at progressive reforms even with a more fairly balanced Senate that was more reflective in composition of the state’s population.
One person/one vote is a principle that has governed electoral politics since the Warren Court decisions of the 1960’s. Yet strangely some in the Florida Democratic Party wanted to implement a system reminiscent of the 1950’s and 1960’s legislature to govern the party just a few short months ago. While Democrats often stand on principle, reapportionment fights have often taught us that most political creatures use issues to gain an advantage but often times don’t believe in the principles they advocate. Some Democrats particularly a few in South Florida have shown in the last few days Fair Districts should not extend to areas where the party has control because it might threaten the offices of some incumbent because it might threaten the offices of sots who “own” a seat.
It can be argued that the current map discriminates against Broward County who has a half a million residents more than Palm Beach County. Broward is the anchor on one less Congressional district than Palm Beach. But because all three members of Congress elected from those Palm Beach anchored districts are Democrats, many leading members of the party in South Florida don’t want to alter those district lines too severely even though the Fair Districts principle frowns upon sprawling districts connecting more than one urban center and different communities of interest.
These Democrats would best be served by learning the lessons of history. As for the Republicans in this state few have the intellectual curiosity I fear to even care about what came before them and why it happened.